Benromach 11, 2009-2020, Cask Strength Batch 04, 57.2%

I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Benromach. And, in this case, I can genuinely say that’s because their flavor profile suits me to a tee.

I hadn’t been there before the revamped launch of Gordon & MacPhail’s 10 year old, about a decade or so ago. Before that I didn’t even really enjoy the brand’s whiskies. But ever since that one, almost everything from their warehouses is awesome.

Of course, there’s the odd Sassicaia cask that I don’t care about, but their spirit is amazing and works quite well in both sherry and bourbon casks. At a variety of ages, to boot.

This cask strength bottling from little under two years ago was part of De Whiskykoning’s Summer Tasting, mostly because it is technically located in Speyside. Based on flavor I do think this is more in line with the heavier and more funky Highland or even Campbeltown whiskies.

Image from Whiskybase

Sniff:
The typical ‘old’ style of Benromach with all it’s funky glory. Hessian, dry leather, earthy and a hint of ‘moldy attic’. Doesn’t sound good but people who know Benromach know what I mean and tend to love it. There are hints of vanilla and dried apple too. Quite some oak, for an eleven year old whisky, with hints of dunnage warehouses, milk chocolate and puffed rice.

Sip:
The palate is bone dry, which isn’t too surprising with the brand, with a lot of pepper and barley. Hessian, leather, oak, dry soil and old wood. Vanilla and a trace of peat, cherries and cherry stones, as well as apricot and dried apple. Slightly bitter tea later on.

Swallow:
The finish is in line with the nose and palate, but loses some of its dry bite. Nicely sweet with a surprising touch of honey and baked apple. Cherry and apricot with hints of hessian and leather in the background.

This does everything you want a cask strength Benromach to do. It brings layers of flavor, some heat but not too much, and dares to choose its own route. It very much feels like this is a ‘no concessions’ dram.

And, for the € 60-odd it sets you back, I strongly doubt you can do better if this flavor profile is in your wheel house. It definitely is in mine. The layers of funky hessian and leather, backed up by both fruity and grainy flavors just works.

88/100

Available in a lot of places, but if De Whiskykoning is near you, get it there!

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Glenfarclas 31, 1988-2020, Oloroso casks, 46% – ‘Flora MacDonald

According to what I can find on the internet when I search for ‘Glenfarclas Famous Scots’, this is the 24th jubilee edition of the series. However, what the other 24 are seems to be shrouded in mystery. The bottling is also mentioned to be part of the ‘Limited Rare’ series. There is a little bit more information on that, but mostly based around Whiskybase and the list of Glenfarclas bottlings there.

Anyway, it seems to be a series of sherry cask matured whiskies, which isn’t too rare for Glenfarclas, all bottled at 46%. This specific bottling is an oldie, and compared to many offficial bottlings from distilleries, it’s quite affordable at a mere € 300-ish. Let’s not linger on that for too long.

Flora MacDonald is famous for heling Prince Charles Edward Stuart escape prosecution after the Jacobite uprising in the 18th century. There’s a lot more information on this on Wiki, and for a romanticized version you can just watch the first season or two of Outlander.

Image from Whiskybase

Anyway, an older Glenfarclas. It was part of the Summer Tasting from De Whiskykoning, which I only got to try fairly recently.

Sniff:
It’s quite gentle, which isn’t too surprising with this age and ABV. Quite some fruit with dried peaches and apricots. Some oak, but not as much as I expected after three decades in it. Some furniture polish, oak and brittle caramel.

Sip:
The palate brings dry sherry and black pepper. Baking spices, cinnamon and brown sugar. Some nutmeg, oak and a bit of an earthy flavor too. After a little while the dryness becomes a bit of a burnt toast flavor.

Swallow:
The finish focuses more on the spices than the nose did. Pepper and baking spices, with peaches, date and sherry. A lot more oak than before.

It’s a bit of a strange one, in such a way that it starts quite fruity and gentle on the oak, but by the time you get to the finish it’s the other way around. It’s also quite typical of a Glenfarclas with both the spices and dried fruits.

While it is an older Glenfarclas, it doesn’t really bring anything to the table that you’ve not had a hundred times before. In a way, that’s a good thing, but it also makes for this not brining much ‘new’ to the table. A very old fashioned dram. Rather tasty, in the end!

87/100

Available in a lot of places, with prices varying from € 250 to over € 400

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Kavalan 5, 2015-2021, Vinho Barrique, 55.6% – OB for The Netherlands

Somehow, whenever a Kavalan becomes available my ears peak up. I am not entirely sure why, because I’m not even that big a fan of the brand. There have been some true beauties from the Taiwanese distillery, but especially their sherry casks only do one thing. Of course, they do that one thing very, very well.

This one was selected for The Netherlands, and that has proven to not be the best of accolades. There have been some very mediocre casks selected over the last couple of years. Some good ones too, but it’s not as high a recommendation as you’d hope it to be. Shop picks are generally better, somehow.

Anyway, a Vinho Barrique. A wine cask, that is. There is no indication to what kind of wine, but the color doesn’t indicate Chardonnay… Let’s just find out!

Keep in mind that I tasted this blind, so there might be some weird indications in the tasting notes.

Image from Whiskybase

Sniff:
Quite some oak on the nose, and although there are notes of sherry, they aren’t jumping out of the glass. Dry baking spices, with cinnamon and clove, a bit of tree bark, and garden mulch. All very wood focused. A bit more sherry, more dried fruits and almonds after a few minutes.

Sip:
Dry and coarse, with ground spices, cinnamon, clove, tree bark, almond flour. Some freshly cracked black and red peppercorns, oak. Orange zest and apricot.

Swallow:
Beautifully fruity on the finish with dates and apricots. A gentle bit of baking spices, some orange zest.

For a whisky at this age and this ABV, it’s a very gentle whisky. Of course it turned out to be a wine cask instead of a sherry cask, but I didn’t pick up on any great tells for that. I might be an idiot, and I know I suck at getting these things right.

Anyway, the color promises a very flavor driven whisky and it’s all a bit timid. It’s very wood driven, but not overly so. I expected a lot more oomph.

But what did I actually think of this? I like that it’s more timid than expected. It gives some other flavors a bit of room to come through, instead of this being a generic sherry (wine…) cask matured whisky. So, I’m quite positively surprised, but not overwhelmed.

86/100

It’s still available in The Netherlands for € 164.95

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Glenugie 30, 1980-2011, ‘Deoch an Doras’, 52.13%

There are several translations for ‘Deoch an Doras’. What is seems to boil down to is ‘a farewell drink’, sort of like ‘one for the road’. Interestingly, this wasn’t Glenugie’s farewell drink, since 7 years later another bottling was released by Chivas Brothers.

Having said that, it’s not unlikely to think that there’s literally no Glenugie left. Releases have become increasingly rare over the last couple of years and with this distillery being gone for almost 40 years, most of it will have been bottled by now.

I had the opportunity to buy a sample off of Teun last year, and reviewed it a little while ago when downing the last sip.

My first interaction with Glenugie was in 2010, at the now sadly closed Lochranza Hotel, on the Isle of Arran. They had a 1968 vintage bottling by Gordon & MacPhail which then went for £ 5 per dram. I am still sad I didn’t buy the rest of the bottle. After that I got a bottle from my wife (review still in Dutch…) for my birthday, and I’ve managed to snag a few samples at various festivals, from various bottlers. Not all of them stellar, but the average of the distillery is quite high.

Image from Whiskybase

Sniff:
It’s rather timid compared to my expectations. There’s sherry, but virtually no sweetness. A rather savory, even yeasty scent. Dare I say soup-y? Treebark, crusty bread, some almonds. A bit of a hessian funkiness. Apricots, nectarines, tangerine, but still not sweet. There’s a certain charred beef note too. Licorice and bay leaf.

Sip:
Again, virtually no sweetness, and a surprising bone dryness. Yeasty, with hint of fruit, tangerine, orange, nectarine. Quite some oak, crusty bread, brittle tree bark. Slightly funky.

Swallow:
The finish is slightly less dry, with lots of fruit. The same as before, stone fruit and citrus. Quite long, and a touch more fruity sweetness.

I tend to like dry whiskies, and the lack of sweetness is something that speaks to me. The combination of fruitiness from the sherry cask, with the meatiness that comes with it just works. It’s a gorgeous dram. Quite unlike practically anything else and that’s what Glenugie is to me. Something from another time.

Of course, it’s quite expensive now, but not as expensive as I expected. Last December it went for some € 700 in auction. Expensive, but not as insane as some other things at the moment (Springbank Local Barley, anyone?)

91/100

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Fettercairn 16, Oloroso & Palo Cortado cask, 46.4%

Image from Whiskybase

Fettercairn is one of those whiskies that doesn’t have a large fanbase. With an average Whiskybase rating of under 85, that’s not too surprising, since that means that there’s enough low scoring whiskies in the mix to counter all those people that rate stuff at 95 by default.

Strangely, or perhaps not at all, it’s from the same owners as Jura and Dalmore, which aren’t exactly fan favorites either. Dalmore is a bit more weird than the other two, though, with official bottlings generally priced sky-high, as soon as it has either a decent age statement or is one of the million special releases.

Anyway, a 16 year old Fettercairn, from pretty well regarded sherry casks, at a decent ABV. From a distillery that *should* be able to gather some interest because of their unique distillation setup. Their stills being water cooled from the top, and such. Let’s see what it’s about.

Sniff:
Malt forward with not much oak on the nose. There is a strange, hard candy like acidity, though. After some more sniffing I start getting a more porridge like note. A note of vanilla too.

Sip:
The palate seems to be a bit more balanced. There’s a custard note of sweetness and vanilla, with a lemon curd note for acidity. Oak and barley, a bit of lemon zest and white pepper.

Swallow:
The finish isn’t too great. Dry with white pepper and lemon, vanilla, oak and barley. The same flavors, but a lot more spikey than before.

I didn’t do too much checking beforehand, and because of that I don’t think I would have guessed this was a sherry cask without checking Whiskybase. As you might have guessed, I’m not a fan. It isn’t bad, but I wouldn’t be happy if I’d spent € 80 on this.

It tastes younger than it is, and the sherry casks aren’t too noticeable either. There’s some peppery spice, but otherwise the hard candy and vanilla can go either way. Bummer.

79/100*

Available more-or-less everywhere for € 80-ish

*Yes, this is according to my recent ‘scoring’ post. Ratings might be a bit lower from now on.

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Ardnamurchan AD/04:21, Paul Launois Release, 57.6%

With me trying to get my bearing and reshuffling priorities between working in an actual office, and not spending a coffee break writing a blog post, being back from a short trip to Scotland and spending some evenings with the misses, a guest post makes an appearance once more. Again, by Tom van Engelen, who is starting to become quite the ‘new distillery expert’ with his fanaticism in collecting all the first releases that have been popping up over the last couple of years.


Ardnamurchan with a golden edge

Image from Whiskybase

Paul Launois is, apparently, a Champagne. I haven’t been paying much attention to that. But anyway, a wine finish in a way, so it can go either way. Ardnamurchan has already proven to produce a tremendous spirit. Doing well on the regular releases, so I’m curious to see what Paul Launois brings to the table.

This one was tasted next to the AD 04.21.03 (third release) Ardnamurchan.

Sniff:
A very interesting layer of glue covering the more regular fresh grainy character. Complex. After some breathing time the idea of a bouquet of flowers arises. The “Le Mesnil-sur-Oger Barrique Finish” sure adds a nice value.

Sip:
It feels like a more traditional exotically finished whisky. Not unlike a Madeira finish for instance. A nice and juicy, but also a tad bitter arrival. Then a sour note that introduces the finish.

Swallow:
A sour exit that lingers in a gentle way. Rather fizzy, very French. It’s hard to believe this has such a high ABV. Very smooth.

A most impressive balance. The Paul Launois finish sure feels like a keeper for future releases. No weird off-notes. I wonder what this will do to a regular aged 10 year old Ardnamurchan.  

88/100

Currently, this one is available in the primary and secondary market with wildly varying prices. All the way from € 165 to € 480 (£400)


About Tom van Engelen

I’m a writer in a variety of fields and have a soft spot for whisky, mainly malt, mainly from Scotland. In other times I enjoyed a stint as editor-in-chief of one of the first whisky magazines in the world. When not sipping a good glass I like to write some more, read, watch 007 movies or listen Bowie music. I’m engaged to Dasha, I have a sweet daughter and I live somewhere between the big rivers in the middle of The Netherlands.

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On scoring whiskies

Over the last year or so, I’ve gotten some questions about whisky ratings. In general, as to what means what, why most things score in the eighties, but also about my ratings in particular.

Some people find my ratings a bit all over the place, others consider them to be on the high side. I don’t think I disagree with any of them, but I though it high time to explain a bit more.

How we got here

Back when things were in Dutch

When I started this blog some 12 years ago I used a ‘star system’ in which I rated some different aspects of a whisky, and then attached zero to five stars to the outcome of that. The score was a combination of nose, palate and finish, the general experience (10 points each) and a +2/-2 for price/quality ratio.

I firmly believe the cost of a bottle has something to do with how well it scores, contrary to some others who go by ‘you can’t taste price’. While that is technically true, if I score two whiskies at 87 points, and one costs about 25% of what the other costs, I feel that should be reflected in the general outcome. I guess I could have wrapped that up under ‘experience’, but whatever…

After a while of using that star system I stopped scoring whiskies altogether. I wrote a short summary of the experience of tasting the whisky, that was the leading thing in my opinion. This was completely based on my own experiences and how I read other whisky blogs. I look for the ‘comments’ instead of the tasting notes and the scores.

However, I did get some feedback on that. People were missing scores and found it hard to compare one whisky to the next based solely on my ramblings. Understandable, but I didn’t want to go back to the ‘split scoring’ of before, so I adopted the general 100 point scale.

The 100 point scale

In a way, the 100 point scale is based on Robert Parker, famous for being a wine critic and coming up with a sort-of consistent rating system. And, apparently, for loving cask aged reds, but let’s not go there.

Technically, it’s a 50 point scale, since it starts at 50. The system works like this:

  • 96-100 – Extraordinary
  • 90-95 – Outstanding
  • 80-89 – Barely above average to very good
  • 70-79 – Average
  • 60-69 – Below average
  • 50-59 – Unacceptable

Of course, there are whisky adaptations for this, which I found in several spots. I also wanted to grab one of my old Whisky Bibles by Jim Murray, but I think I’ve thrown them out a while ago. Apart from that the Malt Maniacs / Whiskyfun seemed a good place to go and there I found this list:

  • 95-100 – The best of the best
  • 90-94 – Fantastic malt
  • 85-89 – Great malt
  • 80-84 – Good malt
  • 70-79 – Medium quality
  • 60-69 – Questionnable
  • <60 – Highly avoidable

I found several others and while they have varying descriptions and slightly shifting ranges per description, in the end, they boil down to very similar scales.

As you can see, there are some similarities between all lists, but the breadth of the scoring system used is slightly different for all of them.

The vast majority of all rating systems sit between 75 and 89 points. After doing this for a decade, and after reading whisky blogs and reviews for longer, I’ve noticed that scores below 80 are far more rare than drams circling 85. Since every website uses a different make up, it’s a bit too much effort to scrape all date into some form of statistics, but I don’t think many people will disagree. Most scores fall in the 80-87 range.

Good whiskies go over 87, great ones go into the 90s. Bad whiskies, or ‘lesser’ whiskies if you will, start going under 80. Under 75 is a rarity, since most people avoid tasting those, and after being at it for years, people tend to know what to avoid.

In the end, it becomes a bell curve, something like this.

Image gotten from the internet

Serge Valentin, one of the mose prolific whisky tasters out there, published his statistics from the first eight years of Whiskyfun, after tasting 6000 (!) whiskies, and it turns out like this:

Of course, take my interpretation of this all with a grain of salt, since this is my personal experience of how things turn out. I dare say this will probably not cause too many raised eyebrows, but there might be some slightly different perspectives.

What’s with the bandwidth?

The weird thing about this curve, is that it indicates that you barely use a very large chunk of the 100 points. Parker doesn’t even go below 50 points, but for everyone else, including yours truly, a score of 70, or 40, or 25 doesn’t make much a difference. I consider all of them to be a waste of money, and would very much prefer not to drink these drams. Generally, when I encounter something with such a shit score, I pour it down the sink.

Now what?

Recently I got into a conversation about a whisky that I rated at 80 points, and people thought that the score was on the high side, according to how the rest of the review was interpreted. I don’t think these people are wrong. I guess I was a bit too ‘accommodating’, even though I wouldn’t know who I’d be nice to.

Hence this post, since I think it was about high time that I spent some time contemplating this.

What I have done is write down my own version of what was described above. I didn’t want to make my own version of this list, but looking back, and taking my own ‘reach’ into account, I feel like I need to.

Sticking to Whiskyfun’s 95+ to be the best of the best, which is obviously true since you can’t go higher than that bracket, I don’t think I’ll get to the whiskies that Serge puts in this range. As in, the actual booze is unreachable because of price or rarity, often both.

So, to me it would be more like this, without moving away from the earlier lists:

  • 93-100 – The best of the best
  • 90-92 – Fantastic malt
  • 87-89 – Great malt
  • 83-86 – Good
  • 80-82 – Medium quality
  • The rest – I’m disappointed

I very much realize the bottom bracket is insanely large. And yes, there is a vast difference between something scoring 78 or 25, but at some point that stops mattering. Below 80 I regret spending money on it, and I would have been better of not trying it. To me, at this point it no longer matters where it sits on the list, since I am simply not going to drink the rest of the glass (hopefully it wasn’t a bottle). After all, I only have one liver, and I’m trying to make it last.

It might be a bit more harsh than the tables above, but in the end I think it boils down to this for everyone. Even if the range of 70-79 points is described as ‘average’, and it might be that that actually is an average of what is out there, it is not the average of what we’re looking for. Ralfy generally doesn’t review anything under 80 points, because it becomes very hard to be nice about the subject.

On a side note: I thought to check out Thijs’ scoring system on Words of Whisky, and apart from using decimals, I think we’re almost 100% aligned.

Concluding

So yes, I do think that I should have been a bit more on point with that Aberlour. I also think there are some others that I might have rated too highly. In general it’s not too far of, and thing I like, I still like even after reflecting on the scoring bit.

I’m glad people pointed it out, and I now think there’s a bit more of a baseline to go by and fall back on.

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Benriach 12, bottled 2020, 46% – The Smoky Twelve

I guess that settled whether I should write ‘smoky’ or ‘smokey’…

Anyway, this BenRiach is one of the revamped editions from recent years, after Brown-Forman took over. A mix of casks was used, with Bourbon, Sherry and Marsala casks all being in the mix.

Image from Whiskybase

I like that there’s disclosure on that, and that it’s bottled at 46%. Some years ago I went through a bottle of the 10 year old Curiositas, which was the then-modern smoky single malt from the distillery. Currently there are ‘smoky ten’ and ‘smoky twelve’ releases available, although there might be more. With the breadth of what BenRiach (or is it Benriach again?) has available, I can’t even be bothered to check.

Let’s just dive in.

Sniff:
There’s clearly some peat involved here, the Highland kind. There’s notes of heather and wood smoke, pine wood and a bit of a scorchy scent too. Pine cones, resin, heather, some bacon even.

Sip:
The palate is dry and rather light, with quite a lot of wood and smoke. Wood smoke, heather, pine, resin, cocoa nibs, orange and dried apple.

Swallow:
The finish is very consistent with the palate with notes of dried apple, oak and heather. Quite a lot of smoke and a sudden nuttiness that I didn’t pick up before.

About five or six years ago I was rather impressed with the Curiositas. I might be even more impressed with this one. On the interwebs it’s score is just below 85, on average, but to me this is what a great single malt should offer. There’s a lot of things to be discovered, it’s well made with a thoughful cask selection process to highlight the spirit. The smoke is definitely there, but not overpowering.

In short, I’m very impressed and I absolutely love this. As in, there’s a bottle waiting for me to be picked up, after buying a sample of it in a tasting set from De Whiskykoning.

88/100

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Aberlour 10, 2010-2021, Marsala Finish, 46% – Hart Brothers

As stated last week, Aberlour isn’t exactly on my radar. Mostly because, apart from the rocket fuel that is A’Bunadh, I don’t really care for most of the official releases. A bit too smooth, a bit too sweet, a bit too generic. Of course, there are some amazing single cask releases from the distillery’s ‘Bottle your Own’ program, or whatever it’s called there.

Which reminds me, I should review my bottle at some point. Not very punctual, since I bought it in 2013, but not less good because of it.

Image from Whiskybase

Anyway, this one popped up in a ‘recent’ tasting by De Whiskykoning. Or, I went through the samples recently, because it was last summer’s seasonal tasting.

So, Bourbon Hogshead matured, but finished in a Marsala Hogshead. An interesting take, but Hart Brothers seems to be on a finishing streak, over the last couple of years. A lot of their releases have some kind of secondary maturation. Generally I’m not a huge fan of the practice, but I’ve had some awesome surprises over the years. Let’s see where this one ends up!

Sniff:
Young on the nose, even younger than the 10 years it states. I bet the bourbon cask wasn’t a first fill one. I get a note of paint stripper and petrol. Slightly nutty with a chemical sweetness. With a bit of time in the glass it does get better, a bit richer with oak, vanilla and candied orange. Brown sugar and old oak.

Sip:
The palate is smooth with a slightly dry nuttiness. There’s a note of orange peel, dry oak and brazil nut. Cashews and honey too.

Swallow:
The finish is surprisingly sweet after the nose and palate. Luckily there’s enough oak and nuts to keep it a little bit in check. Orange peel again.

Yeah. Well. This ain’t it. The Marsala brings a nice nuttiness, and keeps the sweetness in check, but there are so many weird notes on the palate that don’t suit the whisky, that it just doesn’t work for me.

80/100

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Glen Scotia 17, 1977-1994, 57.5% – Cadenhead Authentic Collection

Unless things go horribly awry, I’ll be in Campbeltown in 9 days. Contrary to what you might expect we’re not visiting any distilleries, since time is ridiculously limited and we’re already visiting Watt Whisky. Of course, we’re visiting some shops to gawk at bottles we can’t reliably take across the North Sea due to Brexit being ridiculous.

Anyway, the main part of the trip is to Arran, where we are for the rest of the week. Climbing Goatfell, some other hikes, visiting the Isle of Arran distillery, stuff like that, is planned.

Nonetheless, I wanted to drink some things that get me in the mood of walking around Campbeltown and seeing all kinds of places that used to be distilleries. Of course, with there being nothing left from that era, we are upping the vintage significantly. Although, this whisky still was made some four years before I was born.

Image from Masterquill

I managed to get a sample of this at De Whiskykoning, and decided to try it on a quiet moment yesterday evening. I didn’t intend to drink all 5cls of it, but with things as they are, I didn’t stick to my intentions. Mostly because I find this a truly kick-ass whisky. Let’s find out why.

Sniff:
Wholemeal bread, apple skins, charcoal dust, old white oak. A light note of vanilla cream and a whiff of cheddar. Dried apple too.

Sip:
A bit sweeter before the raging dryness comes in. Oak shavings and sawdust. A mountain of black pepper. Hessian, marram grass, charcoal, dried apple peels. A touch of vanilla in the background.

Swallow:
Again, slightly sweet with pepper and vanilla. Less oak and a sudden green note.

Generally, I’m not always sure about older vintages Glen Scotia. I know they had the setup and skills to make awesome stuff, but what was actually put into a bottle down the line generally didn’t cut it. Of course, with this being from an independent bottler, things are different. And how!

It’s a very light whisky, with all tasting notes being what they are. What lifts this one up is how strong all the flavors are, and the strong note of charcoal that comes with it. It makes for a rather unique dram, even though it is kind-of true to the distillery character. Utterly interesting, and highly enjoyable. Great stuff!

89/100

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